Saturday, October 01, 2005

Mynah Birds and Flying Rocks II

The second section addresses the topic of mynah birds, starting with a reference to a pair of paintings of these birds held by the Freer Gallery in Washington. Professor Rosenfield tells us that "Buson took the subject--fighting mynah birds--from a mode of painting that had come recently from China, but he imbued it with the spirit of haikai verse, and thus made it far more expressive than his models." My question is, what is the spirit of haikai verse, and what does it mean to say that a painting is imbued with it? (He may address this later; I note it as something that comes to mind, especially since Japanese scholars are always making references to haikai spirit and I'm never sure what they mean by this term. Although I can guess, it's better to be told what they think.) JR says that Buson's use of a specific painting technique here, "an underlying geometric framework" that counterbalances the "puddled ink" brushwork, that is derived from the work of Shen Nanpin. The paintings were done for Ashida Kafu (whom I write about in my book). In introducing Kafu, JR tells us a little about the details of Buson's relationships with clients and how he procured materials, but he drops this interesting subject almost immediately, I'm sorry to say.

Next is a short introduction to the uses of mynah birds in painting. JR takes issue with the assertions of Haga Tôru and Hayakawa Monta that these mynahs were emblematic of the state of unrest in the society at the time and the fact that mynahs are symbolic of pandering to authority bears this out. However, mynahs mean something else in a different context. And, JR points out quite accurately that Buson didn't make much reference to politics or social protest in his verse. (Haikai poets of this period didn't.) Given that this is the case, JR looks for "artistic motivations" to help us understand the painting.

After that is a nice brief overview of the Nagasaki School, particularly of Shen Nanpin's activities. JR says that Buson's mynah bird painting is an indication of his familiarity with the work of Nagasaki school painters, though it's not known how he came to know of it. (24) A couple of interesting things here: first, the illustrations of schematic plans of painting compositions from Ransai gafu--I've never seen anything like this before. I suppose it makes sense, but it's amazing to see how completely formulaic it all was. Second, JR's comment that it's revealing to compare what Buson (a "gifted painter") does and what these sad old professional hacks of the Nagasaki school do with a similar subject. Buson's is "far more dramatic" (26).

JR then tells us that Buson's interest in the Nagasaki school style marked him as different from most of his colleagues--the aims of the Scholar-Amateur (i.e. nanga) painters were opposed to those of the more "academic" Nagasaki school affiliates. This is perfectly in keeping with the approach he took to haikai: he wasn't much interested in orthodoxies of any kind.

The next section, "Poetic Vision" in Buson has some nice translations of Buson hokku that also deal with birds. What worries me about this section is that JR does not comment on the fact that in the first instance, the mynah bird paintings, he's talking about visual art, and the second instance, hokku that use bird imagery, he's talking about literature. It's problematic, I think, to lose sight of the fact that we're talking about two very different contexts or media here. It is true that in many ways Buson and his colleagues acted as if there was no meaningful distinction between painting and poetry, consistent with a long line of haikai poets and indeed a good deal of the cultural tradition of China and Japan. However, there is a distinction, to the extent that it's worth pointing out that it is being ignored. I don't think I'm expressing this clearly. How about if I say this: just because Buson acts like the distinction doesn't exist, and indeed precisely because he acts like it doesn't exist, it is important to comment on it. Otherwise we miss a lot of what makes Buson's paintings and poetry--his haiga especially--cool.

So that's something my review needs to mention. How great it would have been to read someone as amazing as Rosenfield really getting his teeth into this problem. I'd really like to hear what he has to say about it.

The next chapter is about haiga. Haiga are so amazing and so under-studied, especially by art historians in North America and Europe, I'm delighted to see JR talking about them. He starts out by telling us a bit about Bashô's haiga, then jumps into Buson's. He gives us a short commentary on the Hashimoto piece. He then gives us a summary of haikai by resorting to a massive block of quotations from Haruo Shirane's book Traces of Dreams. All of these are terrific quotations, and anyone could be forgiven for thinking they couldn't have said it better themselves, but in a book of this kind it seems sort of timid. I completely understand the way it feels to reach into a different discipline--I felt much the same myself in trying to write about Buson's paintings as a mere literary historian, and may yet suffer hideously for daring to do so. But Professor Rosenfield has nothing to fear from anybody, I would have thought. Here he does something I holler at my own students for doing. It's mysterious. After this comes a pretty detailed discussion of the Manzai dancer painting, one of a hachi tataki guy and lastly that charmless Maruyama Ôkyo one with the cat and the spoon.

These are nice, brief expositions of some important haiga that give readers a good idea of how they work. Okay. That's it for this section.